A Reckoning Came

Hot Peppers from the Garden, Oct. 12, 2018.

Even if we knew our ecosystem was close to the tipping point of global warming and its consequences, it is hard to be ready for the recent Washington Post headline, “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest report a week ago. 10-14 years remain to address global warming and climate disruption to which it contributes, according to the authors. If our global society doesn’t address it, scientists find we will likely pass a tipping point toward climate breakdown from which there is no return.

Can we take adequate climate action in time?

“Even if it is technically possible, without aligning the technical, political and social aspects of feasibility, it is not going to happen,” said Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. “To limit warming below 1.5 C, or 2 C for that matter, requires all countries and all sectors to act.”

I’m not hopeful society will react adequately.

Recycling programs are a case in point about society’s failures.

Driven by a desire to take volume out of waste streams, curbside recycling programs came up after the environmental awareness created by the Apollo moon flights and the widely circulated “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble” photographs. It just made sense to recycle materials like metal cans, cardboard, paper, glass and plastics that could be re-used. Along with that came a push by manufacturers to create containers that were recyclable. By any measure the programs were successful for a long time.

Time intervened and today, more and more communities are either scaling back or dropping their recycling programs. The reason? Contamination of waste, increased collection and processing costs, and lower sales prices for recycled material. Who is getting blamed? China. Here’s an explainer from a Pennsylvania television station:

The recycling markets, whether it’s paper, plastic, glass, or other items, are financially unstable now, local recycling coordinators said.

The cost of recycling, including collection and processing, is increasing, while the prices for recyclables sold is decreasing.

One reason, they said, is China. They control a huge portion of the world’s recycling markets and they now insist on taking recyclables that are not termed “contaminated,” meaning mixed with other materials. In fact, China is no longer accepting any recyclables from the United States.

Recycling is something individuals and families can get their arms around. To hear this story, Americans are no good at it. If we can’t do something as tangible as recycle plastics, cans and glass in a way to enable them to be recycled, how can we be expected to reduce vehicular fossil fuel emissions, use of lawn fertilizers, home heating oil and gas, and a host of other consumer products right in front of us? Take that to the next level and how are we to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by changing our food choices to reduce consumption of meat, corn and soy found throughout grocery store aisles? What about the unseen manufacturing plants that use coal, oil and gas to create mundane products like cheap cat litter, toilet paper, hot dogs and home appliances?

What the IPCC is saying is time is short and we have a difficult task in front of us. It involves personal behavior which we have been no good at, and collective behavior that in the current political environment seems impossible.

An obvious precedent to these times is the extinction of Neanderthals after the rise of so-called “modern humans.” How they went extinct is not fully understood, but several theories have been advanced.

“Hypotheses on the fate of the Neanderthals include violence from encroaching anatomically modern humans, parasites and pathogens, competitive replacement, competitive exclusion, extinction by interbreeding with early modern human populations, and failure or inability to adapt to climate change,” according to Wikipedia. “It is unlikely that any one of these hypotheses is sufficient on its own; rather, multiple factors probably contributed to the demise of an already widely-dispersed population.”

Where do we go from here? The IPCC report is no surprise. It is a wake-up call for folks who haven’t engaged in mitigating the effects of global warming and climate disruption. At what point do we get enough people engaged? The day of reckoning has passed, now it’s up to us. We’ll see if we can become better at it.

Environment Work Life

Working in the Heat

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

Independence Day at the home, farm and auto supply store was a time to catch-up with organizing the warehouse, process expired pet food, reposition tall pallets of wood shavings, and generally clean up. The usual receiving activities slowed down as delivery drivers had the day off.

The store was pretty busy and comme d’habitude, management tried to feed us lunch: fried chicken with sides from a chain restaurant headquartered in Orange City.

I resisted. I also didn’t criticize because they were trying to be nice on the holiday we all had to work. We all should be nice when we can.

A couple of projects involved being outside in the blazing heat and humidity. I persisted and got the work done.

When working outside at home I get done early in the day to avoid mid day heat. I’ll work outside all day when the heat index is up to 90 degrees, but that’s the upper limit. With the heat and humidity we’ve been having that meant days indoors even though the sky was clear. It was weird.

According to this morning’s newspaper heat records are being set all over the world. In the Northern Hemisphere we’ve had the hottest weather ever recorded during the past week as a massive and intensive “heat dome” settled over the eastern United States.

In addition, the northeastern Atlantic Ocean is cooler than normal. Partly this means there may be less hurricane-strength storms this season. My worry is it’s being caused by melting of the Greenland ice sheet. If Greenland goes completely, the historical record shows the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) will slow down significantly or stop. That could mean disruption of the growing season in Europe and of their food supply. According to Scientific American, AMOC is the weakest it’s been in 1,600 years.

“The grand northward progression of water along North America that moves heat from the tropics toward the Arctic has been sluggish,” wrote Andrea Thompson. “If that languidness continues and deepens, it could usher in drastic changes in sea level and weather around the ocean basin.”

I think of the blue marble and how all of us on earth are connected.

“No single record, in isolation, can be attributed to global warming,” wrote Jason Samenow in the Washington Post. “But collectively, these heat records are consistent with the kind of extremes we expect to see increase in a warming world.”

There are so many signals and indicators of climate disruption in the global environment that such disclaimers may serve some editorial purpose but are immediately useless. The world is warming and there are consequences.

It’s about more than working outside on a humid and hot day at the home, farm and auto supply store.


Weathering Irma

Water for Hurricane Irma

Friends and family in the path of Hurricane Irma are well-informed of its danger and preparing for the worst this weekend.

Walt Disney World, where our daughter works, closes tonight at 9 p.m. until sometime Monday,  presumably Irma’s schedule as well.

She is working today then hunkering down with supplies of water and shelf-stable food should the electrical grid fail. The open question is how much rain and wind will pelt central Florida.

“It’s not a question of if Florida’s going to be impacted, it’s a question of how bad Florida’s going to be impacted,” William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Friday, according to the Washington Post.

Irma maintained wind speeds of over 185 miles per hour for more than a day, the first storm in the world to do so.

Since 2007 I visited Florida several times. Each time people I met at the auto shop, convenience stores, retail outlets and elsewhere spoke of Hurricane Andrew and how it changed their lives. Floridians know hurricanes well. Surviving Irma is the focus for the next three days.

Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt commented about the link between Irma and global warming:

“Here’s the issue,” Pruitt told CNN Thursday in a phone interview. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced. What we need to focus on is access to clean water, addressing these areas of superfund activities that may cause an attack on water, these issues of access to fuel. … Those are things so important to citizens of Florida right now, and to discuss the cause and effect of these storms, there’s the… place (and time) to do that, it’s not now.”

The upshot is in a backhanded way, Pruitt acknowledges the need to evaluate causation of large tropical storms. I’m confident facts will lead him to how global warming made Irma and other recent tropical storms worse. I may be overly optimistic but the truth matters.

Our household will be following the progress of Irma as it makes landfall in Florida and over the next 48 hours. Hoping the people of Florida withstand the death, destruction and economic consequences of this next in a series of major storms. I expect Floridians will be resilient as this is not their first hurricane rodeo. I trust our daughter will do what’s needed to weather the storm.

Home Life

Outdoors Work Day

Collected Road Sand
Collected Road Sand

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP — Sweeping sand signals the beginning of an outdoors season.

I spent part of Saturday collecting sand from the road in front of the house. I harvested more than we used this winter, so inventory is net positive by 1.5 buckets. It has been so warm we didn’t use sand at all on the driveway or steps.

Trees and lilac bushes are beginning to bud. Troubling but okay as long as a frost doesn’t return between apple blossom time and when they set. I shared my concerns about the early warm weather with a neighbor. We ended up planning a joint project for when frost is out of the ground. “Climate change” and “global warming” didn’t come up but weighed in nonetheless.

I breathed in fresh air and contemplated the beginning of things positive.

Thursday I coughed up a nickel-sized piece of phlegm. By Saturday the cold dominated my attention rendering me lethargic the rest of the day. Besides sand collection, I managed four loads of laundry and a simple dinner of cooked carrots and rice with a vegetarian “chicken cutlet.” Productivity was punk.

Calling off sick from the home, farm and auto supply store is an undesirable option. The reduction in pay for missing work is significant. Although we get 40 hours of sick pay during the year, I don’t want to use it unless I feel sicker than I do. We are incentivized by an end of year payment for unused sick pay. That check for last year came in handy.

Hopefully I can finish several outdoors chores on today’s list.


Letter to the Solon Economist

Woman Writing Letter
Woman Writing Letter

Rain is the best natural resource left in Iowa, helping us grow crops without irrigation because of its abundance.

If other parts of North America can more deserving be called America’s breadbasket — Central Valley, Imperial Valley and Salinas Valley in California particularly — Iowa is due for resurgence because of abundant precipitation combined with California droughts.

Water shortages in California have reached crisis level and despite government actions may not be resolved. If Iowa farmers were to diversify we could overtake California as America’s breadbasket. Now I’m dreaming.

Rain has been a blessing to Iowa and is expected to be our future.

Beginning in 1832, after the Black Hawk War, the landscape of Iowa was transformed from a natural place to a grid of farm fields, cities and towns. Enhanced by global warming, and changes in the polar vortex and prevailing winds, it rains in Iowa — sometimes too much. Rain is all that’s left of what was once a natural world. I’d go so far as to say there is no nature, only sentient beings struggling to survive in this built environment.

No one begrudges Anthony Sells’ saw mill for processing the trees that gave a name to Big Grove Township where I live. There’s plenty of blame for the built environment to go around. It matters little how we got here. What matters more is answering the question what will we do next?

For me that means collecting rain in our yard and preventing erosion. Some rain will be stored in plant life, some in vegetables and fruit. Some will make it to the ditch and the nearby lake. Take what rain we need and release the rest into the Mississippi basin and beyond. Have faith in rain.

What’s here is rain. Rain remains, it’s covalently bonded electrons exemplary of our being. Let it rain.

~ Published in the Jan. 19, 2017 edition of the Solon Economist/North Liberty Leader.


Making Climate Change Personal

Animal Tracks
Animal Tracks

“We could use some of that global warming,” a truck driver told me.

It was a joke. The ambient temperature was in the low teens and we both work outside as part of our jobs. If the weather were warmer our jobs would be easier. I thought it was funny.

“I don’t really believe in global warming,” he said after a pause.

“It doesn’t really matter if you do,” I replied. “Like it or not our climate is changing because of man-made global warming. It affects us even when it is cold.”

He seemed skeptical. Given a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal I should have expected his response.

Our perception of climate change and willingness to accept scientific evidence about it is shaped by what we experience, according to Scott Waldman, writing in Scientific American.

That means if one lives where weather is cooler than average, he is more likely to be a climate change skeptic, deferring to personal experience as a guide. If one lives where it is warmer than average, she is more likely to accept the science of climate change, also deferring to personal experience as a guide.

“When personal experience and expert opinion don’t align on a topic that’s not critical to an individual’s well-being, they’re going to go with their gut rather than what the expert tells them,” Robert Kaufmann, the study’s lead author said.

The article’s title is a mouthful — “Spatial heterogeneity of climate change as an experiential basis for skepticism.” Here’s the crux:

Kaufmann said it’s human nature to trust one’s own experience over scientific evidence or political wisdom.

“Unless it really affects my everyday life, I’m not going to spend time studying this issue, and I’m not necessarily going to believe scientists either, especially now that experts are held in such ill repute, but I’m going to make up my mind based on how I can see and feel climate change,” he said. “For many people, that is record-high and record-low temperatures.”

Such attitudes notwithstanding almost two-thirds of voters across all parties want the Trump administration and the Congress to do more to address global warming, according to Kaufmann.

I appreciate a good climate change joke in the middle of winter because it presents an opportunity to address the fact climate is changing because of human-made global warming, and there is scientific evidence to support it. The conversation is something we should have more often, yet people avoid talking about climate change.

“Most Americans say global warming is personally important to them, but don’t talk or hear about it much,” Edward Maibach and others from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication wrote.

In “Is there a Climate ‘Spiral of Silence’ in America?” the authors found “more than half of those who are interested in global warming or think the issue is important “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends (57 percent and 54 percent respectively).” Fewer than half of Americans say they hear about global warming in the media monthly or more, and only one in five Americans hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month according to the article.

It’s pretty quiet out there regarding discussion of global warming and climate change.

“The future of the planetary conditions on which human civilization depends are reliant now more than ever upon scientists and innovators, businesses and civil society, and our collective efforts to accelerate the implementation of the solutions to the climate crisis that are already available and cost-effective,” former Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore wrote in Scientific American.

If that’s the case, and no one is talking about climate change, how can we create meaningful action to mitigate the effects global warming is having on us?

The good news is technological solutions to the problem are working as the price of renewable energy approaches parity with fossil fuels. In some markets, solar generation of electricity is cheaper than with fossil fuels. If technology will lead the business community to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, we are part of the way there. Technology alone won’t drive the change we need. To find political will for action, every voter should engage in the issues. What can we do?

For my part I’m going appreciate the value of a good climate change joke, and use them to break the ice on conversations about the need to act on climate. People may agree or disagree, but talking about global warming and climate change, and the science behind them, is as important as laughter on a chilly day, or a cold drink during a drought.


Denial and Denali

Denali Photo Credit - Wikimedia Commons
Denali Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Environmentalists are having trouble wrapping their head around a president who visited Alaska above the Arctic Circle on Wednesday to speak on the need to mitigate the causes of climate change, while at the same time on Aug. 17 approved Royal Dutch Shell’s exploration and development of oil there.

It’s not that hard because the challenge of our time is the lack of political will to take action to reduce CO2 emissions in a culture dependent upon fossil fuels. The problem is politics, not physics.

Bill McKibben expressed the sentiment concisely:

It’s no use crying Bill McKibben’s tears.

In 2014, the U.S. used 6.95 billion barrels of crude oil with 27 percent being imported, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. That’s 19.05 million barrels per day, including biofuels. Most of it is for gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas. (The EIA explains how the oil was used here).

During President Obama’s administration the U.S. took substantial action to reduce dependence on imported oil. During the eight years of President George W. Bush, the country imported 28.6 billion barrels of oil or 3.574 billion barrels per year on average. In 2014, the U.S. imported 2.68 billion barrels or 25 percent less than the Bush average.

The rub is that in order to reduce imports, the Obama administration encouraged domestic production through an all of the above strategy that included hydraulic fracturing and increased exploration and discovery like Royal Dutch Shell had been doing in the Arctic in 2012. The strategy worked, and has been revitalized, but at what cost?

Doing nothing about global warming is not an option. The Obama administration has been and is doing something significant. As much as some would like to shut down the coal trains, end hydraulic fracturing and stop drilling for oil – leaving fossil fuels in the ground – it is only beginning to happen under Obama. Whoever is president in 2017, an “all of the above” strategy would mean quite different things with a Democrat or Republican in office.

Scientists understand the basic physics of global warming, and mostly have since the mid-1800s. As long as there is demand for fossil fuels, there is no reason to think exploration and discovery by oil companies will end any time soon. The problem with denial is not so much with political climate deniers. The physics will out, hopefully not too late.

A bigger problem is denial of our addiction to fossil fuels. Most continue to use them like there is no tomorrow. A reckoning is coming and it will take more than renaming that mountain to climb it.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa